Mayor Mitch Landrieu has offered an enticement to judges at Civil District Court to get them to reconsider their opposition to moving into the abandoned Charity Hospital building.
Landrieu is pushing a bill in Baton Rouge that would give the judges an additional year to collect higher court fees meant to help finance a new courthouse. Under current law, the judges have to put that money toward renovations of their current building if by Aug. 15 they haven’t let bids to build a new courthouse.
The judges have collected a little over $3 million so far and take in an additional $100,000 or so per month. They have said they would bond that income stream to raise a good chunk of the $101 million to $132 million they would need for a standalone courthouse.
If the judges heed Landrieu’s wishes, the mayor could use that money to renovate Charity for the court.
State Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who is sponsoring the legislation, said he filed it at the mayor’s behest to help break a stalemate between Landrieu and the judges over his plan to have them move into one of the three wings of the old hospital building. City Hall would occupy a second renovated wing.
The stalemate was stated succinctly by Michael Bagneris, then the chair of the Judicial Building Commission, who said last fall that the likelihood of the judges moving into Charity was “zip. Zero. Nada.”
In October, Judge Kern Reese accused Landrieu of engaging in hardball tactics to keep the judges from moving to a site other than Charity Hospital.
Reese now co-chairs the Judicial Building Commission after Bagneris resigned from the bench to run against Landrieu for mayor.
Monday night, Reese offered a more conciliatory approach.
“The mayor obviously wants to continue the discussion,” Reese said. “Things had reached an impasse. Through some back-channel discussions, a request was made to us to keep an open mind. We said, ‘OK, if he has anything else to consider, we’ll consider it.’”
Landrieu did not respond to a request for an interview Tuesday. His spokesman Tyler Gamble emailed this statement: “The City supports providing Civil District Court with the flexibility to continue to collect the fees while we continue discussions on the adaptive reuse of Charity Hospital as a civic complex.”
Leger’s bill passed the House unanimously last week and is now before the Senate Finance Committee. Under his bill, the money the judges collect could be used to renovate Charity. Current law says the money has to be used for “a new facility.”
Leger said that change was made at the mayor’s request.
Reese said the judges support the bill and expect it to pass the Legislature.
In the meantime they are continuing to work with the developer they have selected for a new courthouse.
“We’re still looking at sites,” Reese said. “Until that bill passes, our deadline is still Aug. 15.”
Under a 2010 law, the judges have to solicit bids for a new courthouse by Aug. 15, or use the money they collected to repair their existing courthouse at Loyola Avenue and Poydras Street. Judges complain that it is cramped and deteriorating and say the only solution is a new courthouse.
The mayor has said it would be cheaper and better for everyone involved if they would move into the old Charity building along with city government.
Leger said he is hopeful that the judges and Landrieu will find common ground.
“We want a high-quality place so the people of New Orleans will have a courthouse that meets the city’s needs,” he said.